Beneath The Surface
The morning I realized the birds on the telephone line outside my apartment were cowbirds and not crows, a boy I knew was getting his heart stitched up.
The boy was in a hospital and I was not in a hospital. I held the phone against my chin with my shoulder and hunched over, rubbed a cotton ball across my toe, and asked, “It’s going okay?”
My boyfriend was on the other line, standing against a window on the seventeenth floor of Mass General in downtown Boston. He cleared his throat and took a sip of something. “Seems to be,” he said.
I didn’t think then about the heart or what was happening to it—the idea that a thread was pulling something so fragile together. I dabbed the cotton ball into more of the acetone and wiped at the other toe and said, “Good.”
* * *
I’d met the boy nine times before.
Once we ate Brussels sprouts off china plates in a living room decorated with wallpaper of printed pink Colonial men and women. Another time we pulled on zip-up sweatshirts and walked along the Charles River, drinking marshmallow lattes with a disproportionate amount of marshmallow. On one occasion, he handed me a blanket that smelled like attic and made me watch forty minutes of loose footage he taped at his father’s lake house.
“It’s going to be a thriller,” he said, “when I’m done with it.” This implied a vast amount of time spent in front of computers and monitors and boxy black equipment. But all I saw were ripples on water and geese taking off towards some definite treeline.
“Okay,” I said.
The night we watched the footage, the boy was seventeen. It was January. Even under the blanket, my feet were cold. I kept trying to tuck them up under me, rubbing my socks together beneath the fabric. His cousin Keith sat beside me quietly, watching the footage with fascination.
“Can we go soon?” I whispered in his ear. I wanted to be some place else: a downtown sidewalk, a restaurant, a place where I wouldn’t have to pretend something ordinary was special.
“In a minute,” he said. “I’m enjoying this.”
The footage of the birds and the trees and the sandy embankments would be edited down, turned into a film, submitted at some point as part of a portfolio to film schools. This is what I assumed. I let my eyes slide over the footage and onto the boy. I tried to picture what he would look like under big, bulky headphones.
When the footage finished playing, I folded the blanket and put it back on the couch. “Good to see you again,” I said to the boy, and then I pulled on my snow boots and trudged to the car, parked two streets away, the snow coming down softly, the man I loved following behind.
* * *
The boy suffered from congenital heart failure. He wasn’t supposed to live past six months. This is what the doctors told his mother in the birthing room.
“His heart is functioning at three-quarters capacity,” they said. “Two of the four chambers aren’t divided; they don’t work.”
His mother held the child, still warm in his blankets. She looked at the doctor. She named the baby Charlie, after her father.
In the hopes that he might exceed their expectations, she held Charlie against her body each day and sang hymns. An infection, doctors warned, could exacerbate his condition; her milk would be best. But the baby grew tired quickly, his small lips too weak. She bought special formulas to increase his caloric intake, held the bottles along her chest and prayed.
Charlie turned six months and then twelve. On his first birthday, his mother baked a cake with real vanilla beans and rich white buttercream. She took his picture, his cheeks covered in icing. She put it on the refrigerator to remember.
Two weeks later, the doctors performed open-heart surgery on the child. They lay the baby on a small padded table and wrapped him in a thin white sheet. They made an incision in the center of his chest, tucking wires around the organ. They divided the upper and lower chambers. They added a patch to the right ventricle to improve blood circulation.
The surgery would let him see six, they said.
Charlie turned four and then he turned five. His mother had him swallow pills with orange juice. She tucked the bitter ones in pancakes. The pills fought off infection. He turned seven, and then nine, and then eleven. His heart kept beating. The doctors wondered aloud if it might beat forever.
On his twelfth birthday, his mother rented a pavilion along the river. His father grilled hamburgers and sweet peppers and Charlie rode a horse along the edge of the water.